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by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

An Ecumenical Luther

The Reformation as a movie.

St. Anne help us, there are so many Luthers to choose from! One Luther is the enlightener of the benighted Middle Ages, defender of the sovereign conscience and originator of modern individualism. Another Luther is the Volk hero whose linguistic and political achievements were used to forge a new image for imperial Germany in the late 19th century. Yet another Luther is the first great anti-Catholic, darling of partisan Protestants; on the flip side is the heretic anathematized by the Council of Trent. A fifth Luther might be the anti-Semite of the Shirer myth, lately demythologized but still blotting the conscience of post-Holocaust Christians. And then there is the Luther of Lutherans' own table talk, all beer and bowels, profanity and profundity, known chiefly by his Small Catechism and a great many aphorisms taken out of context.

Among these aphorisms is the infamous "Sin boldly," and this, apparently, was the guiding principle of the screenwriter and director of the recent film named for its protagonist. One could hardly do otherwise with such a colorful and controversial figure. Rather like the New Testament scholars who—according to Albert Schweitzer's famous Quest for the Historical Jesus—find in Christ a reflection of their own faces, Hollywood has uncovered a usable Luther for the silver screen.

This is not, wholesale, a bad thing. Director Eric Till has gone out of his way to tell the story of the decadent late medieval church while causing minimal offense to contemporary Catholics. The whole business of indulgences (selling get-out-of-purgatory-cheap tickets) is presented more as an Italian foible than anything else, political rather than theological, a regrettable episode in the history of a largely well-meaning church. This is an unsurprising way to handle what otherwise counts as a grave embarrassment all around: to Lutherans for having to tell it, to Catholics for having to remember it.

After all, the past century ...

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